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  • Susan Gallagher

Feathers Over Fifth Avenue

If forced to choose between spending New Year’s Eve in Time’s Square and having my hair set on fire, I’d have to think about it for a while.

My husband is always threatening to drag me there, and I usually manage to convince him otherwise with talk of the traffic, the expense, and the germs—my God, the GERMS! Why anyone would want to be that close to that many people is beyond me.

This year he didn’t mention it, probably because we’d gone earlier in the month to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and come home with a $115 parking ticket. (the sign said "No Standing: Taxi Pull Off". It didn’t say "No Parking") I’d agreed to go along on this trip under one condition: that we stop to see if one very well-known Fifth Avenue resident was at home. Here’s his picture from an ABC News website...

Pale Male, on right with chick, as his mate lands at their nest

This is Pale Male, the most famous red-tail hawk in the world. He nests across the street from Central Park, on the façade of a building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He wasn't home when we got there, but you can see his nest above the middle window on the top floor...

927 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY

Pale Male has held this prime piece of real estate—in what’s known as the city’s "Gold Coast”—for nearly 20 years. This, despite having been evicted twice; the nest was removed at the insistence of a few of the building’s residents, those no doubt in possession of shriveled, blackened souls. Undaunted, the bird and his mate rebuilt.

This storyline reads like that of a soap opera, full of emotional highs—as Pale Male successfully raises dozens of young in an unlikely territory—and lows, namely the death of one mate who’d eaten a poisoned pigeon. It is told in full in the book “Red Tails in Love” by Central Park birdwatcher Marie Winn.

Winn not only chronicles the hawk’s adventures, but those of her fellow bird enthusiasts. She writes about how the Gold Coasters, the poor folk, and everyone in between meet at the “birding bench” to spy on Pale Male with binoculars or, on occasion, with pricey telescopes; how they hold regular warbler walks in spring, and communicate via the “birders’ notebook,” a spiral-bound tablet stashed in strategic park locations, in which these urban wildlife-lovers to log their most notable sightings.

Here’s what I really enjoyed about Winn’s book: her and fellow New Yorkers’ idea of a “notable sighting” is quite different from mine. What these people cross an urban jungle to experience, I can find, literally, in my own back yard. They brave crime, insane traffic, and the mentally unstable homeless to set up a sunrise woodpecker vigil, while I can see the same kind of drama unfold (yawn) out my bedroom window. I don’t even have to put on my shoes—hell, I don’t even have to put on my clothes to see the chickadees, creepers, titmice, finches and sparrows that send city dwellers into ornithological ecstasy.

So, okay, I don’t live in a dee-luxe apartment in the sky, but I am rich beyond measure. I am blessed, for I have a backyard birdfeeder.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Here is some stellar photography by my friend Tom Wampler. He files these under “Lookin' Out My Back Door”. Seems like Tom’s a pretty rich guy himself.

Goldfinch in breeding plumage

Downy woodpecker

Tufted titmouse

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